By Gail McCarthy
---- — John Hays Hammond Jr.’s favorite time of year was Halloween, and for the past 28 years, the Hammond Castle, which he built in mid-1920s, has treasured the season of eerie fun with its annual haunted benefit event.
This year is no different. The haunted tour, titled “Castle of Madness,” through the medieval-style castle, has been extended past Halloween to include this Friday, Nov. 1 (All Saints Day), and Saturday, and Nov. 2 (All Souls Day) for the first time.
Castle curator John Pettibone always gets into the festivities, and for the past decade has temporarily adopted the persona of the cannibalistic serial-killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter for this event, which this year starts at Stage Fort Park, the only site for tickets and boarding the castle shuttle.
“Are the lambs still silent?” he asked visitors last weekend before they boarded the bus. He also handed out Lecter’s business card —stamped with a brain. Over the years, he has mastered the voice of Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of the character.
Aboard the shuttle, visitors hear about a murderer who killed his family and are tasked with attempting to enter the killer’s mind and being a witness to his nightmares. At the castle, visitors are greeted and escorted by mad scientists toting blue lanterns before entering the seaside estate in small groups.
The visitors pass through about 20 rooms and common areas where they will take in an array of sinister scenes and characters, ranging from screaming women to a butcher in the kitchen to a creepy clown.
An element from years back is reincarnated this year.
“You might find it ‘amazing’ that in a room of 2,800 square feet, guests will find a maze,” said Pettibone.
He has seen many of his haunted house volunteers — about 50 are needed each year — pass down their role to their children who are now part of the annual escapades. The volunteers range in age from teen-agers to senior citizens.
Pettibone said castle staff started the Halloween haunts nearly 30 years ago in honor of Hammond’s legacy. He shared some of the history that inspired the annual event.
“(Hammond’s) cook Nellie Connors always stood ready to provide on a moment’s notice the food befitted that season as she was never sure how many celebrities would be pestering Hammond’s secretary for an invitation to come and visit his ‘abbey by the sea’ during October,” he related.
“Hammond, who was married to a psychic, believed if you bring back antiquities, you bring the spirit of the original owner or makers, too,” he added.
And the castle is filled with antiquities. Pettibone noted that the castle was filmed for a new Travel Channel series, in which he will discuss “things that go bump in the night.”
The nature of the haunted event has evolved over the years. In the beginning, each staff member created a haunted room.
“This was the era of the fake cobwebs and fog machines, but I think we have gotten more sophisticated since then,” said Pettibone.
Then a theme-based event emerged.
This year’s effort was spearheaded by Matt Parisi with the help of castle staffers Jay Craveiro and Linda Rose, with a corps of volunteers, who did a masterful job of decorating, said Pettibone.
Parisi said this year they were trying to do something different.
“It’s not like some of the other haunted houses in the past,” said Parisi. “We are trying to get inside people’s head with a lot of suspense along the way.”
The castle has taken on many shades of horror.
One year Pettibone played an eccentric proprietor who tried to lasso people who walked by him; the lasso was made of fake snakes.
“But one woman almost passed out on me and I had to stop. It was so effective we had to get rid of it because it was too effective,” he said.
Another time he played Norman Bates of “Psycho” fame; he sat in an early American bedroom with a bloody shower curtain and a sign that read “vacancy.” His “mother,” rocking in a nearby chair, every now and then would reach out to try to grab someone passing by.
For several years, a man played Michael Myers, the masked killer from the “Halloween” horror film series, who actually owned one of the four masks from the film production.
“One year he stood on a platform holding a machete, and he wore knee pads to protect himself from being kicked because that’s what people would do when they got scared,” said Pettibone.
In the era of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” film, Pettibone played that character for about 10 years, and spent close to a $1,000 on a replica of the costume; the volunteers received custom-fitted vampire teeth.
But about nine years ago he moved on to play the role of Dr. Lecter.
“My Hannibal even had a Facebook website, and some people wanted group hugs,” he recalled. “Overall, we have come a long way to ensuring that the spirit of Hammond is still very much alive in his ‘abbey by the sea.’”
Gail McCarthy can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3445, or email@example.com.
'Castle of Madness' at Hammond Castle What: Final haunted castle tours. When: Friday, Nov. 1, and Saturday, Nov. 2, from 7 to 11 p.m., with last tickets sold at 10:30 p.m. Ticket booth opens at 6:30 p.m. at Stage Fort Park. Where: All tickets sold at Stage Fort Park, where there is a small midway with treats, activities and entertainment. Ticket holders will ride free shuttle to the castle. Organizers note that parking and ticketing will only be at Stage Fort Park, off Hough Avenue in Gloucester. Caveats: "Castle of Madness" is not recommended for young children. It is a 20- to 30-minute indoor and outdoor walking tour involving stairs and uneven footing. How much: $15 at HauntCastle.com. Proceeds benefit the castle. For more information, visit www.HammondCastle.org.